By Ralph Lowenstein
Dozens of people were involved in the creation of WUFT-FM. By the late 1970s, the University of Florida was already the licensee of three broadcasting properties, all assigned for supervisory purposes to the College of Journalism and Communications. They were WRUF-AM (commercial), WRUF-FM (commercial) and WUFT-TV (non-commercial). Dr. Kenneth Christiansen, chair of the Department of Broadcasting, and Dr. Mickie Edwardson, professor of Broadcasting, had long been interested in adding a National Public Radio (NPR) station to this group, and had done preliminary work toward filing an application. However, it was believed unlikely that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) would give any entity a fourth license in a single location for a duplicate coverage area.
When David J. Brugger, arrived here as general manager of WUFT-TV in July 1977, we set him to work immediately on filing an application for an NPR station. He had been an executive with the Iowa Public Television Network before coming here, and was an absolute genius in organization and knowledge of FCC and public broadcasting filing procedures. It turned out that both NPR and the FCC welcomed the possibility of an NPR station in Gainesville, because we obviously had a very large potential audience in north-central Florida that could not be reached by a strong NPR signal.
Provost Robert A. Bryan and Associate Provost Gene Hemp gave the College a special Quality Improvement Money (QIP) appropriation to get the station on the air. We were still $26,000 short in the sum needed to guarantee annual salaries, and the College of Journalism and Communications guaranteed $26,000 annually from its UF Foundation endowment income to make up that shortage, if the State Legislature would not come through with the money.
A special bill to include the proposed WUFT-FM in annual state funding, along with the other public broadcasting stations in the state, was rejected on first vote in the State Senate. Senators Buddy MacKay of Ocala and Pete Skinner of Lake City went from desk to desk in the State Senate to get the bill reconsidered, and it was passed. At the same time, thanks to the personal plea of Phil Emmer of Gainesville, Gov. Bob Graham did something he had never done on any other proposed bill – he promised in advance of passage that he would not veto it if passed by the Legislature.
Brugger hired Perry Echelberger, experienced in non-commercial radio, as the station’s first manager, and Jo Wellins to design community fund-raising. Doris Bardon, a dynamic newcomer to Gainesville, agreed to chair the new station’s Community Advisory Board. Thanks to Brugger, all the disparate pieces came together. (David Brugger later became senior vice president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and still later president and chief executive officer of the Association of America’s Public Television Stations. Jo Wellins is currently senior director of University Advancement at Tufts University.)
Fortuitously, Brugger had also applied to the Public Telecommunications Facility Program in the U.S. Department of Commerce for an especially strong tower for WUFT-FM. It was designed to be erected next to the WUFT-TV/WRUF-FM tower at the Devil’s Millhopper site. When an airplane crashed into the existing tower, collapsing it, in Fall 1980, the new 863-foot tower was substantial enough to handle the transmitting antennas of WUFT-TV and WRUF-FM, as well as the new WUFT-FM.
The big moment for WUFT-FM to go on the air was scheduled for 3 p.m. Sunday, September 17, 1981. I had looked forward to being at the inaugural ceremony in the atrium of Weimer Hall, the new Journalism and Communications building that had opened only a year earlier, along with other persons from the university and community, but a death in the family sent me instead to Tampa to catch a plane for El Paso, Texas. As I drove into the Tampa airport parking lot at 2:55 p.m. that Sunday, I had my radio on and tuned to the dead air at 89.1 on the FM dial. At 3 p.m. sharp, the carillon atop Century Tower ushered WUFT-FM into the world with the tune of “Florida, Our Alma Mater”. It was not a strong signal from 136 miles away. Nevertheless, those bells provided one of the most beautiful sounds I have ever heard.
It is said that “Victory has a thousand fathers; defeat is an orphan.” That was certainly true of WUFT-FM, a station that we thought had little chance of being born. Its fathers and mothers were truly numerous – but that is always the basis of the wonderful creative process of public broadcasting.
Ralph Lowenstein was dean of UF’s College of Journalism and Communications from 1976 to 1994.